Officials from the Pentagon and Obama administration have been quick to point to Islamic State’s significant territorial losses in Iraq and Syria, but one expert warns it is too soon to celebrate the group’s destruction.
“Even if the Islamic State doesn’t immediately recover from the demise of its government, it will be buoyed for years to come by spectacular attacks abroad and by its earlier state-building success,” wrote William McCants, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute who specializes in Middle Eastern studies, in a post for the Markaz blog Tuesday.
McCants’ reasoning defies conventional wisdom, common among security analysts and policymakers, that says should ISIS lose its “parent tumor” in Iraq and Syria, the organization will crumble.
McCants’ counter-point is simple:
“No other Sunni [terrorist] group has credibly claimed to reestablish the caliphate in its historic heartland since the demise of the institution in the 1920s.”
ISIS and other terrorist groups like al-Qaida often point to the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the last Sunni Muslim “caliphate,” as a dark turning point in Islamic history that led to what they believe is a downturn in Islamic society. ISIS is the only group to have come close to anything similar. McCants believes that fact will rally support to the ISIS banner for some time.
ISIS is well aware of the fact that it could soon lose its territory in Iraq and Syria, and isn’t particularly concerned about it. An editorial published in the group’s al-Naba weekly newsletter in June said that even if ISIS lost all its territory, it could revert back to how it was “at the beginning,” when the group was “in the desert without cities and without territory.” The piece referenced similar statements made by ISIS spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani in May.
As it has lost territory in Iraq and Syria, the caliphate has frequently reverted back to its origins as a terrorist insurgent group, known then as al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI). Since the U.S. and other coalition members in Operation Inherent Resolve began retaking territory from the group last summer, ISIS has increased terrorist attacks in Europe, the U.S. and even in the Iraqi capital of Baghdad.
In a video briefing at the Pentagon Wednesday, Gen. Sean MacFarland, the commander of U.S. forces fighting ISIS, told reporters that U.S. and Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) are aware of ISIS’ hybrid tactics, and are addressing the problem.
“Some forces are supposed to be counter-terrorism, counter insurgency, and some are supposed to be tailored for … combined arms maneuver, decisive action type of fighting,” said MacFarland.
The general admitted that currently the ISF is heavily focused on rolling back ISIS conventionally, but he noted that some of these units, such as the Counter Terrorism Service, will soon revert to their traditional counter-insurgency role.
McCants, citing the al-Naba editorial, noted that “if [ISIS] is denied another chance to build a state for a generation, it will no longer command the enthusiasm it now enjoys.”
“Until then, its enemies have little cause for rejoicing at the demise of the Islamic State’s state.”
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